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Driely S. for Racked

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Do Dance Cardio Classes Make You a Better Dancer?

Checking my moves in dance classes coast-to-coast.

There’s something about the marriage of dance and exercise that makes a person feel like they’re doing a crap job of auditioning for a community theatre production of A Chorus Line. Yes, doing "the pony" incinerates calories without the monotony of running, and completing a full turn without falling over is a small adulthood accomplishment, but something about the whole charade feels like a fake-y version of actual dance classes.


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These days, the dance cardio world has become incredibly robust. You can find everything from prim-and-proper bouncing and club-like atmospheres to moves that would get you cast in an early-Millenium rap video, but there’s one thing that links twerk fitness and jumping jack dance together seamlessly: the little voice in your head that wonders if you can do this... for real.

Since I have a God complex when it comes to assuming I’ll be good at dance-related things, I took the hit and tried three bi-coastal classes, two in LA and one in New York. If I can follow along in any dance cardio class without having to think too hard, I probably have what it takes to drop into the nation’s most reputable dance studios, right?

The answer — filled with ego-destruction, flexible toddlers and lyrical movement — surprised even me. Now, thankfully, checking into a professional dance class won’t have to surprise you, too:

Millennium Dance Complex: The Hip-Hop Capital of Tinseltown

My first stop on the boogie train was at Los Angeles’ Millennium, the famed studio known to me for being in every Britney Spears documentary and to the public as the home of basically any insane dance video that goes viral. The Nicki Minaj "Anaconda" one? Yep, it was shot there. "Bitch Better Have My Money?" That one, too. So, you can imagine how terrified I was to be Uber-ed over to their intense facility for an "open-level" class of "professionals" that I was "warned against coming to but did anyway."

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Image: Driely S. for Racked

When I arrived, there were piles of out-of-town children signing up for a masterclass with Tricia Miranda, the maestro behind all those viral vids, which was almost distracting enough to pull focus away from the sign on the wall warning me to neither speak to nor take photos of celebrities haunting their dance zoo. (Oh boy.)

In the first few minutes of class, it becomes readily apparent that I made a mistake not heeding their level warning; even operating a human body filled with Adderall, I was still lost after the first eight count. Long story short, hip-hop is, oh, NOT THE SAME as it was in suburban Chicago circa 2004, and I have no idea how these cool teens and fit adults are taking in and spitting out these combinations like dance memorization machines. Why can I hold my own in a front-row position in AKT In Motion but am absolutely flailing here?

The reason why comes right back to those viral videos. Much to my ego-destroying surprise, those clips aren’t shot in, like, a secret room where the talented people hang out. I am now one of those dumbfounded faces in the background, because these videos are combinations learned in class just minutes before. That room is not a three-wall set for brilliant dancers who have rehearsed for weeks — I danced on that same floor! And the people breaking it down aren't surrounded by fans, those on-lookers are anyone in class who didn’t raise their hand when asked, "Who feels like they’ve really got these moves down?" I couldn’t keep anything straight! It was insanity! (If you want to play Where’s Waldo? for a floundering exercise columnist in this class clip, have at it.)

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Image: Driely S. for Racked

Still, despite jumping at the opportunity to fall back to the reject row and dumbly mime everything out three counts late, it was nice to do exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise. I sweat for an hour straight, but didn’t feel tired or weighed down like I usually do post-workout. I didn't feel toned, but I found that this is actually what I’ve been looking for in hip-hop dance cardio. This mix of super-quick street movements was more challenging than classes that just teach twerking and hip-hopified jumping in the air, but it was real. I spend the majority of boutique classes forming silent enemies with people on my fitness level, but since professional dancing isn’t the game I’m running and doesn’t affect me on a core level, I felt free.

I felt like an idiot, too, but a free idiot. Was it scary? Yes. Did I feel one thousand years old surrounded by pageant tweens? Yes. Do I now wish I had Adidas breakaway pants and crop tops as the only items in my wardrobe? Oh my gosh, yes. I was bad and confused, but I wasn't a complete waste — it was only one hour, after all, and your first-ever hour of Beyoncé dance cardio or Tracy Anderson is going to be hard, too.

I left feeling clumsy, but like I knew what had to be perfected. With a skill like this, the more you put into it the more you get out. Someone’s gotta bring up the rear, after all. I think for once I’m okay with it being me.

The Sweat Spot: LA Contemporary at Its Quirky Finest

If you’ve ever watched a beautiful SYTYCD combination and thought, "Wait? Where the hell can I do that?," the answer is, well, basically everywhere — but the only place you should do it at is The Sweat Spot. Founded by Sia’s go-to choreographer Ryan Heffington, the Los Angeles studio is best known for Sweaty Sundays, a 90-minute cult favorite with enough open movement, short shorts and flying sweat to make you feel more alive than a bucket of mimosas and a bendy straw. Don’t believe me? Even his direct take on Dance Cardio looks a thousand times more fun than many classes I’ve taken — he’s doing lunges in Doc Martens, for chrissake — and his inner monologue on the "Chandelier" video feels ominously like it will belong in the Smithsonian one day. He is magic incarnate, and his spell floats through the studio whether he’s there or not.

Image: Driely S. for Racked

In an effort to find the happy medium between donning a leotard and dropping into burpees, I opted for a jazz-inspired class from a different teacher, which was a revelation. The hour-long session was 30 full minutes of stretching; I felt more open than I have after any yoga class. Every type of fitness encourages you to connect with your body, but there I really did. Bouncing (literally) around that room was the most comfortable I'd ever felt dancing outside an exercise studio, ever, and the joy wave I rode after class meant that I benefitted beyond sheer calorie burn.

The Sweat Spot’s classes are also more thought-provoking than traditional dance cardio. You’re not just facing forwards, sideways or backwards; you’re moving in all different ways, your arms and feet moving in opposition at times, in unison at others. The contemporary combos have their roots in ballet and jazz, so if you can master at least a poor man’s Pas de bourrée or sloppy fouetté, you’ll be fine; if you trip over grapevines at DanceBody, start with their basics class. (Full disclosure: I had to YouTube videos of those ballet terms I just spat out to get their names; if you danced when you were younger, you probably know ‘em inherently.)

The studio sits on the main drag of Silverlake, and is just as hip as its neighborhood surroundings, but with none of the pretension. It’s exhilarating, it’s fun; I now readily daydream about living in LA and attending weeknight classes back-to-back-to-back. And, unlike hip-hop classes, which have piqued my interest in mesh crop tops, everyone’s "movement clothes" looked like the pajamas I’d wear in college when I didn’t have an overnight guest. (Suck it, athleisure!)

Basically, if the vibe of The Sweat Spot was a lone male individual, I would force all of my friends to date him readily and go down on him often, because he is accepting, funny, laid-back and a total catch. There’s no hard dance instructor teaching you beats with mouth noises (kun-kun, cha-cha!), there’s no wrong answer, there are no worries — you can just let your body move. Isn’t that what dance is supposed to be?

Broadway Dance Center: Where New York’s Finest Gather To Get Down

If anything, Broadway Dance Center — the hub of all things movement in New York City — lives up to its name. Yet, while it’s intended for professionals, it’s still great for n00bs. I found BDC to be oddly welcoming to the outsider who was interested in dropping in for a formal dance party.

Image: Driely S. for Racked

Unlike Millennium’s novice-or-pro ranking, BDC offers a six-level system that makes it much easier to, simply put, attend a dance class without hating yourself. I opted for the second-lowest, Beginner (and still found it challenging, so proceed with course caution). The pace was much more relaxed, too — I did mistakenly take an advanced class at Millennium, but here, with 90 minute classes, there is so much more time to ask questions and run through the tricky portions.

There’s definitely a heightened range of ages among classes — tap classes are regularly filled with, oh how do I say this, old biddies; I danced among a cluster twenty-somethings and a legitimate pipsqueak in an emoji-print top and pigtails down to her tuchus — but that’s kind of why it’s great. I found myself identifying more with the moms waiting outside on the felt-covered stadium seating, likely wondering "who is this gangly adult and why is she being photographed instead of my daughter?", but never felt out of place. While some dance studios can feel competitive, this comes off like more of a learning opportunity you can show up to whenever your schedule permits.

The level of calorie-incineration in these classes were low, since we took our time with choreography, but it’s essentially the ideal off-day activity, made even better by its participation in Classpass.

Image: Driely S. for Racked

If you’re partial to pop music videos or are looking for something twerk-adjacent, BDC is ideal because it’s a similar vibe but with inventive choreography, not just ass-shaking or copycat choreography. Robert Taylor Jr.’s hip-hop class had dancehall-inspired footwork, while Chio’s Jazz Funk class took was a more lyrical, freeing approach to a similar style. I left slightly overwhelmed, and not super confident, but at least proud of myself for showing up and doing it.

With dance cardio, the only hurdle is not hitting the snooze button and actually showing up. With BDC, it’s leaving your ego at the door, taking your self-conscious brain out of your skull and trying something very new and very scary. It’s interesting — we say we box, we say we run, but 28 minutes at Mile High Run Club a few times a month doesn’t really make you a runner. And sure, punching a deadweight bag with pink gloves may make you feel like a boxer, but odds are most of us would get our noses broken instantly if trapped in a ring with a legitimate opponent. At Broadway Dance Center, you leave a dancer by default. It’s where everyone takes classes, from Broadway performers to flexible tweens to lifer ballerinas. Your status is only dependent on if you return or not. So because of that, I'll plan on coming back — and because if anything, it’s an incredible way to repurpose your old Forever 21 clothes.

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